Faster, Higher, Longer, StrongerThis
made me wince : "Meanwhile an incident in which a mugger took his wallet and outran him showed that the 38-year-old does not have the speed he once possessed." Oooh. Ow. Ouch.
But that's it. Ben Johnson squandered every chance at redemption; he also shred every spec of dignity with systematic alacrity. This was almost stylish. For instance, that exhibition race against two horses and a car, which the horses won and the car lost, it having gone into a tailspin. Well, yes Ben, quite. What's the point in racing humans when you've tried so hard to excell the human? The point was well made - and with such elaborate drama! - in 1988. Remember Johnson surging towards the TV crews, feverish and livid in an angry red Canadian strip, eyes swollen, bugged-out by huge hormone-doses and steroid-surges. Remember how Seoul heat made the air ripple and waver. It was unreal. It was
unreal. But Johnson's unreal record, 9.79 seconds, which he actually ran
after all, was unbeaten for over a decade, even after sprinters out-smarted testers. It was illegal. It was wrong. But make no mistake, during those years, everybody, in the back of their minds, knew who had the world record. They'd seen it, 9.79 seconds
, then been told to erase it, forget all about it. No way! You couldn't! You wanted to see it one more time. And you wanted to see someone go faster. Something, someone, unnatural
Johnson's Fall paused a phase-shift in human ability: how far or fast or hard the body could be pushed by chemical mutation or synthetic conditioning. And you could see how ugly it was going to get by how ugly Johnson looked in that Seoul final. Except it didn't happen like that. The whole point of athletics is: improve on perfection; the mantra: push the body beyond its limits. In the late 80s and early 90s records fell by large margins. Doping stayed one step ahead of testing. When a substance was detected and banned, coaches and athletes moved onto something undetectable and legal. More records broken, seconds and centremetres shaved. The Soviets and East Germans were pioneeers: building labatories and training camps in their quest for a generation of uber-athletes. Doping became endemic, spiralling beyond the Soviet bloc. You could even be beautiful and glamorous and stuffed full of steroids. There was Flo Jo, the phenomenon. The incredible Florence Griffith Joyner, curling nails and vivid varnish on the track. Terminal heart seizure, aged 38. There was, of course, tragedy.
This reminded me of somebody I'd completely forgotten about. I started following athletics in 1990, upon discovering some latent talent for the triple jump (Welsh Junior Championships, 1993-4; Swansea Harrier, 1995-6). In 1991 Katrin Krabbe was sprinting's hot young thing. She took gold in 100 and 200m at the World Championships. I thought she was incredible, if a little unnerving. A latter-day Aryan-dream, Stasi-style: tall, hard-boned, slim, glacial. I can't think about her now without thinking of Brigitte Nielsen and Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV
. But, it's often forgotten, Krabbe possessed severe physical grace that was spellbinding, and a face as beautiful as, say, Sharon Stone. When killing lovers with a pick axe, granted. Krabbe came from the avant garde
East German doping programmes. And, inevitably, in 1992, she failed a drug test. Actually, two
tests. I tasted bitter disappointment, being young and naive. Krabbe tested positive for clenbuterol. This itself demonstrated how athletics had advanced. The Drug Enforcement Administration formally banned anabolic steroids in 1990. After the ban, athletes found other alternatives; prescription and veterinary drugs and multi-tier supplementary routines that could replicate or replace steroids. After more bans and busts, human growth hormone (hGH) and erythropietin (EPO) came into voque. Both disfiguring and dangerous: the elongated jaw-lines and overgrown hands and feet that result from exessive hGH abuse; EPO-triggered strokes and heart attacks, blood thickened to gel. Clenbuterol, which Krabbe gorged, is a veterinary drug used to build muscle mass and strength in exhibition livestock.
Sports doping, when you get to the details, is sordid and deranged and terrifying. You eventually get to Heidi Krieger, who claimed that steroids almost turned her into a man, so had surgery to complete the inevitable. You get to the acne-scarred backs, the disfigured bones, the facial discoloration, the muscle tremors. You get to the blood "so vicious and thick that [athletes] end up with all sorts of volume overload and clotting problems." You get to the dead athletes. And, weirdly, you get dead athletics. The Mens 100m is the
big showpiece event. Last year the world record was broken again. It now stands at 9.77. A small slice off Johnson's '88 time. Officially drug free. But nobody listens to such claims now. Subtle chemical manipulation is an open secret. Nobody's even that interested. The Mens 100m has become a very strange event: both hypertense and torpid, pure cocktail callisthenics. Bulked-up brutes slicing through the air like lithe cheetars. It holds little interest as competition: this is perverse spectacle.
(Edit: This is an old post from around the time of Helsinki '05 and so prior to the incredible Usaine Bolt effect. All it takes is long legs and style, after all.)